How far can a government go before its people push back? What are the limits of governmental power and how do we keep it in check? What recourse do we have when government abuses power and refuses to “play by the rules”? The opening of the American Declaration of Independence recounts the profound nature of these questions saying:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
This was written by a people who were convinced their government was willing to use its power to further its own interests at any time and any way it chose. They lost faith in their government because it chose to use its power over them randomly and without recourse. Their government threatened them economically. They responded through economic sanctions against the government’s interests. Their government threatened them politically. They responded by setting up extra-governmental congresses. Finally their government threatened their very lives and liberty. They responded by taking up arms and forcibly removing those who abused power.
None of this happened in an instant. It happened over the course of many years. When it did come to a crisis it wasn’t just the tea party or the Liberty or Death speech or “the shot heard round the world.” These are historical contractions; ways to make sense of events after they happened. Those living in the events didn’t always see how they connected with both the past and the future, nor did they all agree upon what to do about it. There were loyalists and patriots and at the time each thought the other thoroughly “unpatriotic” one way or another.
It would be a mistake to think that “civil discourse” existed in the time of America’s founding. To believe our forefathers treated each other better than we do today is to be ignorant of history. There has never been such a thing as clean politics; not in America, not in any country with any form of government at any time in history. Politics are messy, and there have always been people willing to do anything to accumulate and exercise power over others. It is exceedingly rare to find an instance where people on either side of an issue are completely in the right, or completely in the wrong. Both sides abuse power, or attempt to manipulate circumstances to their greatest advantage using questionable tactics. The American revolution wasn’t carried out by perfect people with a perfect claim against England. The standoff at the Bundy ranch isn’t a case of perfect people against an imperfect government either. So we have a serious problem: we need government to live well because without it we are on our own against individuals likely to exercise and abuse power over us, but once we form a government it is made up from those same individuals who are likely to exercise and abuse power over us.
The American form of government is not all that it could be. There is plenty of room for improvement. But the thing we’ve gotten right; the thing that led an obscure backwoods colony to become the most influential and powerful nation on earth in less than 200 years, is the dilution of power. That sounds strange, but its true. America became more powerful than any other nation because its political system prevents the accumulation of power by the few and spreads it out over the many. This counterintuitive form of governing created both freedom and restraint in the highest ratio ever seen on the world stage.
While our government has changed and grown, this core of diluting power so that freedom and restraint stay in balance has remained. But the core of the core is our current problem. There was a reason our forefathers feared the accumulation of power, and it wasn’t because they hated a particular king exercising it over them. Our forefathers, and the majority of every generation of Americans until the last one, believed human beings were flawed and couldn’t be trusted with power. We did not have illusions about our fundamental goodness. We believed in a thing that sounds very old fashioned now: sin. Because sin was a fact and sin infected everyone, we knew instinctively that fewer people with greater power was a recipe for disaster. This lesson was forcefully driven home to us by two world wars ignited by totalitarian egos, and a cold war driven along by the same thing. But now we are a half generation removed from the fall of Soviet style communism, and a generation and a half past world war, and we no longer believe in sin. You can tell by the way our leaders talk. The Russian invasion of the Crimea elicited this response from our Secretary of State:
“You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on a completely trumped up pre-text.”
Our leaders don’t see that sinful people have always and will always make up pretexts for abusing power. We are not getting less sinful because we have the internet, the best understanding of science, or the highest educational standards in history. If anything history shows us that the more we advance technologically the more we will use that technology to abuse and exploit each other. The ignorance of history and the loss of the language of sin leaves us in danger because it fosters an environment in which our natural suspicion of individuals who accumulate power is stunted. We can’t believe the President of Russia would actually invade a country because he can and he wants to. We can’t believe the President of the United States will ignore the Constitution because he can and he wants to. We can’t believe these leaders are sinners. There was a time when calling these men “sinners” whose every action deserved our careful scrutiny, would have been nothing more than an agreed upon fact. We would not want to destroy them because they were sinners, we would just not allow them to act without restraint, without recognizing they were capable both of error and of deliberate abuse of power. We would know this because when we looked inside ourselves we would see the same flaw. Now we are defenseless against sin because “sin” doesn’t exist; it died along with God.
Not only are we victims of the mythology of a sin-less world, but a godless world too. We blindly trust government to act in our best interests all the time. In other words, government now occupies the place of God in our culture. It is both sinless and all powerful. Questioning government activity is like questioning church doctrine. Worshipping other gods above government is increasingly dangerous. Appealing to another source other than government for freedom and protection is discouraged.
The only kind of people who can provide real and lasting help for the situation facing America today are those who know themselves to be sinners and the whole world to be broken by sinfulness. These will be the only people with both the awareness and the humility to work together to solve our real practical problems. These will be the only people with the guts to say no to the accumulation of power by sinful people and the self awareness to keep from grabbing it for themselves. This is how our forefathers founded our nation; taking power from the powerful but dispersing it among the many. The cowboys at Bundy had the guts to stand up to sin and the abuse of power. If they act like Americans of old they will not abuse the victory and they will share power with others like themselves. If I am not mistaken this kind of courage and restraint are going to become more and more necessary day by day if we are going to remain both a free and a powerful nation which is a force for good in a sinful world.